by Chris Lucas
March 19, 2019
While Walt Disney himself wasn't Catholic, he's got a special connection to Saint Joseph, whose feast day is today.
In 1940, using the profits from Snow White, Walt bought land in Burbank, California, for his new state-of-the-art studio campus. In 1942, Disney's fortunes dimmed as the World War limited his distribution of films. He mostly made shorts for the military, and the Army took over part of his studio for the war effort.
Around that same time, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was looking for space for a hospital in the San Fernando Valley area, which had over 300,000 residents but less than 100 hospital beds. Archbishop John Joseph Cantwell brought in the Sisters of Providence to help run the new hospital, and a site was selected across from the Disney Studios in Burbank. Walt himself deeded several acres of his property, which he once thought would be perfect for a Disney park, to the sisters for the project - which was announced as Saint Joseph's Hospital on March 19, 1942 and officially opened in 1943.
Walt, whose daughters went to Catholic School, served on the board of the hospital for a time, gave money towards the construction, and even participated in the groundbreaking with the Archbishop and the Sisters. The Archbishop of Los Angeles was invited to dedicate Disneyland in 1955, and the Sisters of Providence were given free passes to visit the park any time. Famed Disney artists like Mary Blair were commissioned by Walt to provide artwork for the hospital, a lot of which still exists, along with newer pieces.
In November 1966, Walt checked himself into Saint Joseph's for a nagging injury. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in that same hospital a few weeks later. His room overlooked the studio that he built. On the night before he passed away, Walt enthusiastically described his plans for the "Florida Project" to his older brother, Roy, using the ceiling tiles at Saint Joseph's to map it all out.
Roy had planned to retire, but stayed on after Walt's death to see his kid brother's final dream, Walt Disney World, to completion. A few months later, Roy Disney passed away at Saint Joseph's, almost five years to the day after Walt.
To this day, the Disney Company is an active supporter of Saint Joseph's hospital, which is now the largest in the San Fernando Valley, with over 500 beds, 650 doctors and a staff of almost 3,000. Roy's son, Roy E. Disney, and his wife, Patricia, sponsored the building of a cancer treatment center there, which is named for them.
For Saint Joseph's in Burbank, it all started with a mouse.
Chris Lucas is the author of the forthcoming book